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Twilly Gosuk: Yup’ik ivory carving artist returns to Unalaska, marking first in-person UAF class on island in a year

Twilly Gosuk is an ivory carving artist from Togiak, Alaska.
Courtesy Twilly Gosuk
Ivory carving by Twilly Gosuk, a Yup'ik artist from Togiak, Alaska.

Last week, the UAF Bristol Bay Campus held its first in-person course in Unalaska since last September. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, local courses have been completely virtual over the past year.

KUCB’s Hope McKenney sat down with Yup’ik ivory carving artist, Twilly Gosuk, to talk about his work and time teaching in Unalaska.


Twilly Gosuk: I'm from Togiak, which is in Bristol Bay, on the Bering Sea. I grew up herding reindeer with my dad. My dad received like 149 head of reindeer from Nunivak Island. And he had them brought down to Hagemeister [Island], where he set them free. We would go down there during the wintertime, and we would use snow machines to take whatever reindeers we needed for a village. He was like a wholesale butcher.

Hope McKenney: So tell me a little bit about when you started ivory carving.

Gosuk: My brother Sam was going to school. So he told me, “Spend some time here in Seattle.” So I did, and he and I knocked around South King County in the Seattle area working different jobs. And at some point, he got tired of speaking Yup’ik to me — we speak fluent Yup’ik. He wanted to find other Natives to speak Yup’ik to. And one guy in particular was a World War II Navy veteran, and his name was Jim Prim. My brother found out that he carved soapstone. So he gave Jim Prim 20 bucks to give me a carving lesson. At the time, I was working all over Seattle for very low wages — $3.35 at Wendy's. After two weeks of working for Wendy's, I made 50 bucks. I looked at my check, looked at my brother, looked at my check, looked at my brother, and I said, “I quit.” And then this guy showed me how he made a walrus laying on its side and sold that to a wholesaler for 115 bucks. So I said, “Okay, that's for me.” I did soapstone for six years. And then my dad gave me a tusk. He said, “Here son.” And he gave that tusk to me. And I looked at it and said, “Yeah, I'm gonna carve this.” So I tried doing it how you carve soapstone. I got a hacksaw and I cut it. And I tried carving it with a file. It took me one month to carve that single walrus and it was the ugliest walrus I've ever done. After that, I said, “I'm gonna buy me a Dremel.”

McKenney: How old were you?

Gosuk: I was 20 years old.

McKenney: You mentioned yesterday that you make such beautiful carvings of these halibut and salmon and various things because you grew up doing all this and seeing salmon and halibut every day. Can you tell me a little bit about that? Tell me about how you became a master carver of some of these things.

Gosuk: It's easy for me to make a halibut because when I first started fishing with my grandpa at seven, I was the halibut boy — I had to take the halibut from the net and fling them off the boat. And I've been a fisherman for most of my life until I retired from fishing to pursue my ivory carving. But I see a lot of seals, walruses, bears, salmon, birds, and it comes very natural for me to carve them.

McKenney: So you said you and your brother speak Yup’ik fluently. Was that your first language?

Gosuk: Yeah. I was so fluent in Yup’ik that when I went to school for the first time in the first grade, I flunked first grade. And then they were gonna flunk me again. But then they decided to set me free to become a second grader I guess. I got a lot of knuckle raps from the ruler. You know, during those days, they would punish you for doing stuff that I didn't know I deserved. I didn't know I should be punished for not knowing how to speak English.

McKenney: When did you start speaking English? What made that happen?

Gosuk: You know, I started paying attention. I got dictionaries from the library. I would pour through dictionaries, you know, and I'd look up each word. I remember playing with my friend, and we were done playing for the day. And then he said a sentence, he said, “I'm going to my home.” And then I looked at him and smiled. And I said, “I'm going to my home too.” That's what I remember about speaking English.

McKenney: And does anyone in your family also carve ivory? Are you the first?

Gosuk: I'm one of the first. After I watched that guy carve, I looked at him, I said, “I asked Jesus to give me the talent for carving.” And I gave my first carving to a preacher. I want to be a carver. I remember when I was seven, we had to do papier-mâché, and made an animal. I decided right there, at seven, I said to myself, “I want to be an artist.” So that got shelved away over the years. But then, you know, here I am, living my life as an artist.

McKenney: And something I always appreciate so much, now that I've taken your class two times, is just how supportive you are to everyone in class. Can you talk a little bit about if that's a philosophy of yours, or if it's just you being your upbeat self? That's something I really appreciate — your approach.

Gosuk: I work with all my students and I encourage them that they can do it. I give them that nudge to go into carving. Because anybody from seven years old to seventy years old can carve once they're given the direction and the foundations for carving. My uncle, before I joined the Marines, he said to me in Yup’ik, he said, “Ca tamarme elitengkertuq” And I wondered, “What does that have to do with my joining the Marines?” “Ca tamarme elitengkertuq” translates loosely, “In everything, there's a way of learning that. There is a way of learning anything.” So I apply that to my life. In general, anything I approach, I just take that and I tell myself, “There is a way to learn that. I know there is a way to learn what I'm going to tackle.” Exactly what my uncle told me. “Ca tamarme elitengkertuq.” So I look at each student that I have and I know that person will find a way to learn my passion, which is carving.

Hope McKenney is a public radio news director, reporter, producer and host based in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
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